Type: A Visual History of Typefaces & Graphic Styles

I was excited when Taschen announced the first volume of Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles, described as “This exuberant selection of typographic fonts and styles traces the modern evolution of the printed letter”*. Such language, including the title, is disingenuous, because this book is not a history. Type does contain a short essay by coauthor/coeditor Cees W. de Jong about type history, but it is poorly written and riddled with inaccuracies. Similarly bad are the captions that introduce each specimen. Many are obvious or inane statements such as “It was an honor to have one’s name set on such a lovely publication.” (p. 88), “This printer from Amsterdam evidently had a lot of customers in the countryside.” (p. 100) and “Back in time! Two lines, two different typefaces in a fantasy world.” (p. 243). Overall the writing feels like a draft rushed to press; it should have been fact checked and edited by a historian.

cover photo: Type, a visual history of typefaces and graphic styles

If Type is not a history, then what is it? Type is a photographic odyssey through type specimens collected by the late Jan Tholenaar, a Dutch bibliophile who adored ornamental metal type. This volume, the first of two, covers the period 1628 – 1900. About two-thirds of the content is from the nineteenth century, with a heavy focus on the artistic printing movement. Most of the pages shown are cherry-picked for their ornamental letters and borders. For example, the photos of the very rare 1794 Fry and Steele specimen focus not on Isaac Moore’s classic interpretation Baskerville’s types, but on the fleurons.

You will not find many important text faces of 1600 – 1900 in Type. Baskerville’s work does not appear, Bodoni is only seen in Greek, and the didones shown are knockoffs. The walbaum, scotch, and scotch modern genres are ignored. As one might expect from a collection of metal specimens, wood type does not appear. Unadorned sans types appear when they are on a specimen page with ornamented types, but no effort is made to showcase them. While ornamental designs are certainly worth exploring, they are hardly the only type of the period. I know from firsthand experience that some of these specimens include a far wider variety of type then what is seen in this so-called history.


As a companion to Type, 1,000 images of type specimens can be downloaded for unrestricted use from Taschen.com using a key card. They are of excellent quality and high-resolution versions can exceed 300 DPI at real size. For some specimens the pages found online go beyond the ornamental focus of Type. These images alone are worth many times the cost of the book; if you download two of them you have broken even on the cost of paying a library for a high-quality book scan.


As an object, Type is a winner. There is only one bad reproduction in the book and every other image looks great. Luscious paper lends gravitas to even the most ridiculous artistic printing specimens. Layouts are thoughtful, considerate of content, and never become monotonous. Now and then a specimen is stripped down to just the letters and printed in gold, a treatment type does not get often enough. If the typesetters had used f ligatures this design would be exquisite.

spread 2

That a respected publisher would represent a niche collection as a survey of typographic history is disturbing. Future editions should be titled Ornamental Type: Specimens in the Collection of Jan Tholenaar, Volume 1. It needs to be proofread and edited by an expert. That said, I do not know of a better tour of ornamented type specimens, and I doubt there will be one. If you like ornament, buy Type, but let those responsible know that they owe history better.

* Type: A Visual History of Typefaces and Graphic Styles
Written and edited by Cees W. de Jong, Alston W. Purvis, and Jan Tholenaar
Published by Taschen, ISBN 978-3836511018
Design: Sense/Net, Andy Disl & Birgit Eichwede.
Amazon link.

James Puckett left a career in IT to study at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC, where he graduated with honors. While at the Corcoran he developed a passion for typography that resulted in a thesis on versatility in type design. The interest in type design sparked by his thesis led James to pursue commercial type design after graduation. James now resides in Manhattan where he designs type for release through his foundry, Dunwich Type Founders.

More book reviews on ILT.


  1. Brush This

    This is an interesting article with beautiful examples. I’ll be back for more :0)

  2. Amazing examples indeed, made my day :)

  3. In the first sentence you wrote:

    If Type is not a history, than what is it?

    Was that on purpose? Interesting article indeed…

  4. kupfers

    Thank you for your clear words.
    I hoped for a differentiated look on the book for a long while after all the praising (by people who obviously haven’t read it).
    Reading the title one expects type but mostely gets ornaments in an all but historically complete overview.
    Very well reproduced and designed it is, though. One can’t do much wrong with so much gold.

  5. Interesting article, it is difficult to gather the most prominent of the Typography (1600 - 1900 in Type) in small space, without a doubt, this is a good example.

  6. History buff

    Thanks for the information on this book. I am a little disappointed that the title doesn’t offer an accurate and lengthy history of type as I am always looking for an interesting history book. I am also disappointed because Taschen usually offers such wonderful books. But I will likely purchase the book anyway for the pictures and the images available for download.

  7. “Was that on purpose?”

    Given how rarely I have a reason to use the word “than” I am sure it was, but it is incorrect use here. Obviously I need editors :)

  8. Bec

    I own this book, I bought it on a whim and was surprised it retailed at £30 (I got it for £23 with a discount.) Overall, the keycard access is most definitely worth the investment.

    Maybe you need to do a history of type instead…

  9. Maybe you need to do a history of type instead…

    A history of type is out of my league. But I do know that there is at least one big survey in the works.

    What we really need is a group of qualified writers to come together and update Updike’s Printing Types to cover what was left out before and what has happened since. If Taschen would do an updated Updike with new photos I might never leave my apartment again.

  10. Great article – haven’t heard about this book until now!

    Although it’s philosophical, I would recommend to read:
    The Poverty of Historicism – Karl Popper.

  11. canvas art

    Great stuff, the collection of Peter Tholenaar looks the best!

  12. Gary Lonergan

    I saw this in a discount bookshop in London for £35 and immediately picked it up because looks so good. I was very disappointed with the content, Far to much ornamented type which I detest and hardly any information.

  13. Leigh

    Oh my god. I just found this. I get weak in the knees sometimes looking at type and can spend hours at it. I don’t really know what to do with this passion. Now I have your blog maybe that will help! Thanks,

  14. This is a great article. I’d love a book like that.

  15. Jan Middendorp

    James, thanks for the critical evaluation. On an editorial level, the book is not great and it is good to point that out. But how about your own fact-checking? “…the late Peter Tholenaar” …who is that? The collector is Jan Tholenaar, who is also credited as co-author of the book. Besides contributing an article about collecting type specimens (an old piece, first published in a Dutch magazine about 10 years ago) he may well have been involved in the preparation of the book itself. He is indeed “the late Jan Tholenaar”, but died in April this year, when the book was already in production.

  16. Jan Middendorp

    What we really need is a group of qualified writers to come together and update Updike’s Printing Types to cover what was left out before and what has happened since.

    Hm. A new comprehensive history of type is an interesting challenge. But to take Updike as a starting point? Not for me. I find him too biased, too impulsive in his mixture of academic history and offhand personal comments. Updike can be a good source for facts, but his approach and style are definitely dated; and his information needs to be double-checked against more recent findings. Let’s first see what Paul Shaw (is that the work you referred to, James?) will come up with.

  17. Jan, as I noted above, I make mistakes too. And I do not have an editor—web budgets do not allow for that. I do not expect any book to be perfect. But in the case of Type the number of mistakes in a very small amount of copy was surprising.

    As for Updike, I admit that his work has glaring flaws. But what other starting point do we have for something really thorough? And I was referring to Paul Shaw’s work.

  18. Cees W. de Jong

    Dear James Puckett, A set of two books about typefaces, borders and lines. With a key card so all illustrations can be downloaded high res. First volume 1628-1900 and the second volume 1900-1938. Jan Tholenaar was in love as a collector with the high lights of letter press and the periode of 1850 till 1930. Jan Tholenaar is a friend of me for all most 20 years and we have worked for the last years of his life on this project till he died on april 28th 2009. Two weeks before, we have seen the last plotter proofs. Both happy with the result. The result is not an academic publication. It is a handy source for young designers. A personal selection of typefaces borders and lines by Jan and me, published only from the collection of Jan Tholenaar. The retail price is very low. Good for young designers and students. Published in six languages.
    Cees W. de Jong

  19. Cees, I understand that Type is not an academic publication. But I believe that the title of the book, your essay in the book, and the marketing of the book should have emphasized the personal nature of Jan Tholenaar’s collection rather than veering in the direction of a history. Had that been the case, I would have had mostly positive things to say about Type.

    Please do not get the impression that I hated your book. As I said in my review, I do not think that there is or will be a better book on this subject. That is why I ended my critique by telling people to buy it regardless of my reservations.

  20. This looks like a great book. I have a few books on typography but I do not have this one would be nice to add it to the collection. Thank you for sharing. Great article.

  21. Nice collection of fonts.I also like the wordpress theme you are using….brilliant.keep up the good work.

  22. Hey that was a really nice post… I work in a website designing company and appreciate it a lot…

  23. I bought this book, and I have to say from reading the blurb in the notes it was pretty clear I was buying someone’s personal collection of metal type specimens, and not a definitive collection spanning the whole history of type.

    Some of the type treatments are astounding, and not necessarily the heavy floral pieces.

    But as you mentioned, the best value comes from the access to download any of the pages from Taschen’s website.

  24. Just bought this nice book too and must say that the content is nice and plus the online access to many high-res images of the fonts is great.

  25. Victor

    Am I the only one who read “F You GIMP” on the cover?

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